A certain amount seems to be agreed about the history of Islamic fundamentalist ideology: Saudi Arabia sought to fend off criticism of the monarchy by pouring money into the proselytizing of Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world; this intellectual milieu opened the road from one form of commitment to other, more extreme, forms of commitment; both al Qaeda and Hamas benefitted from this in the past in the sense that there existed a broad tolerance for Islamist terrorism. However, now ISIS has emerged as the champion of conservative Sunni Islam. The “end-of-days” thread in the thought of ISIS has alienated many (perhaps most) Muslims. That still leaves people (the policy-makers, the politicians who front for them, and the scholars and intelligence officers who advise them) with dilemmas.
For one thing, ISIS might best be thought of as a coalition, rather than a coherent movement. On the one hand, it is essentially an Iraqi Sunni movement. Yes, it flourished in a Syria torn apart by civil war, but it has at its core Iraqi Sunnis who had participated in the insurgency that followed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, then fled to Syria. On the other hand, it is an international “brand” that inspires malcontents elsewhere to act against both “Unbelievers” and “Misbelievers.” Will any one strategy succeed against ISIS or is it just an umbrella term for several separate wars?
For another thing, will mowing the lawn on a regular basis (i.e. drone strikes on Islamist leaders) accomplish anything? The answer probably depends on whether one is attacking a tightly circumscribed transnational terrorist network (like Al Qaeda) or a broadly-based insurgency (like the Taliban). Killing the leadership of a network will disorganize it and disrupt its communications. Killing the leader of a local insurgency may just lead to the movement coughing up another leader, one possibly more radical than his predecessor. The U.S. has faced this dilemma since 9/11. Starkly: hunt Osama bin Laden or invade Iraq?
For a third thing, “is the main threat the radicalization of Islam or the Islamization of radicalism?” That is, do some elements (individuals or groups) of Muslim communities move toward a conflict-oriented fundamentalism? If that’s the case, then the solution may be more effective policing to discern people headed down a pathway to violence. Alternatively, do some madmen just seek a “cause” with which to identify, and ISIS is the flavor of the month? If that is the case, then perhaps the defeat of ISIS will reduce the appeal of “jihad.” (NB: Probably both. So, where are the physical and psychological spaces where the two groups meet?)
The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov reports that about a quarter of the ISIS recruits in Europe are actually converts from some other faith or from no faith, while many of the Muslims come from families that were non-observant. One way to read this is that secularization has left some people intellectually and emotionally adrift. Another way to read it is that troubled people search for some rock to cling to so they aren’t washed away in their inner storms. The two are not incompatible. Moreover, Trofimov is understandably pre-occupied by the danger of attacks in the West. What about the many more dissidents in the countries of the Muslim world?
Can ISIS be defeated? In one sense, yes, obviously. Bomb them back to the Stone Age. But can it “die”? Are Bozo Haram and Bangladeshi terrorists and “lone wolves” in California and Florida actually in touch with the Islamic State in any meaningful way? Or are they just inspired by the example? If ISIS is defeated in Syraqia, will it be discredited or will people continue to evoke it as an ideal? There are no easy answers to any of these questions.
 Yaroslav Trofimov, “U.S. Killings of Militant Leaders Deliver Mixed Results,” WSJ, 27 May 2016.
 Yaroslav Trofimov, “For Some New Militants, Islam is a Flag of Convenience,” WSJ, 17 June 2016.